Can eating small fish whole protect against dying from cancer?

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
An open can of sardines.Share on Pinterest
Research shows that eating small fish, such as whitebait or sardines could affect cancer and mortality risk. Helen Rushbrook/Stocksy
  • Our diet is one of the environmental factors that can influence our risk of cancer.
  • Past studies show following a healthy diet may lower a person’s cancer mortality risk, while eating unhealthy foods may increase a person’s risk of dying from cancer.
  • Researchers from the Nagoya University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan have found eating small fish whole may reduce all-cause and cancer mortality risk in Japanese women.

There are many factors involved in a person’s risk of both developing and dying from cancer. Previous research shows that one of those influencers is what we eat.

Past studies have linked following a Health">Healthy diet such as the Health">Mediterranean diet to a lower risk of dying from cancer. On the flip side, following an unHealthy diet high in Health">sugar, Health">salt, and Health">ultra-processed foods may increase a person’s cancer mortality risk.

Now, researchers from the Nagoya University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan have found eating small fish whole may reduce the risk of death by cancer or any other cause in Japanese women.

The study was recently published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

In addition to being a healthy protein source, small fish also provide a variety of nutritional benefits including omega-3 fatty acids and micronutrients such as calcium, vitamin A, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.

“The health benefits that have been associated with fish overall such as being a rich source (of) essential and protective nutrients such as protein and healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids, as well as a source (of) calcium from the bones and a host of other vitamins and minerals has been pretty consistent in the research,” Monique Richard, MS, RDN, LDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition-In-Sight explained to MNT.

“Often when someone is eating small cold-water fish sources they are also choosing other foods that complement the health benefits offered by fish such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” Richard continued.

“Tiny fish do not typically lend themselves well to being battered, deep fried, and served with french fries but are more delicate as well as naturally portion controlled. They tend to be more rich and flavorful in taste to the palate which lends itself to slower eating, savoring the bites and possibly needing less to feel satisfied,” she said.

“This study adds to the existing evidence of fish consumption and cancer mortality. We’ve seen in previous studies that regular fish intake is associated with a reduced risk of gastrointestinal cancers, as well as being a potential benefit for cancer survivors who have diets high in oily fish.”
— Molly Rapozo, RDN

“This kind of research is important because what we eat has a significant impact on chronic disease. Lifestyle changes, such as food choices, are an opportunity to decrease the risk of early death and disability. Evidence-based dietary strategies offer a practical approach to reducing the burden of chronic diseases, including cancer, and improving longevity,” Rapozo said.

MNT also spoke with Anton Bilchik, MD, PhD, surgical oncologist, chief of medicine, and director of the Gastrointestinal and Hepatobiliary Program at Providence Saint John’s Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA, about this study.

Bilchik said he found the study interesting that eating small fish whole may offer protective factors against the development of cancer.

“But I think that this is very early in terms of … what exactly it means, what’s a whole small fish in terms of the anti-cancer chemicals, vitamins, and the big buzzword in cancer right now is inflammation. So within a whole fish, are there various compounds and vitamins that have an anti-inflammatory effect? But there’s still a lot to be worked out,” he said.

Because many young people are being diagnosed with cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, Bilchik said it is important for researchers to continue to find new ways of protecting the body from cancer, including through what we eat.

“The usual causes such as obesity, smoking, family history, are not commonly found in these young people that are being diagnosed,” he explained. “And so the only other potential linker can be looked at is diet at a young age — whether these individuals that are getting early onset cancer, such as colorectal cancer, are eating processed food, are being exposed to environmental factors that may influence cancer at a young age.”

“So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to better understand why so many young people are being diagnosed with cancers, particularly colorectal cancer,” Bilchik added.

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